Sitting at the end of an entertaining meal we were pretty much at a standoff. There was brief mention of the selection of Irish cheeses, but that would have been akin to turning up at a Marilyn Manson concert with a deckchair, flask of tea and a copy of the Bible.
No, there was no mission. The struggle was what to order from a dessert menu designed by Monto Mansour. The top dog at our destination, Mansour had previously rocked the pastry world here with Derek Creagh in Bangor and then with Micjael Viljanen at the Greenhouse in Dublin.
On our side of the table we finally agreed on a tasting plate for two, on the other side a Mandarin and Praline Palet Dor and Bourbon Vanilla Bavarois.
Desserts were, as we expected, a heavenly, knock-you-on-the-seat-of-your-pants-if-you’re-not-sitting-down smack in the face.
The tasting plate was awash with vibrancy and colour. A small nod to lemon meringue pie started things with buttery, crisp pastry offset by sweet light top and sharp lemon filling. Then there was a Tonka caramel choux bun that nearly had us fighting and a small taste of a Panna Cotta that was hit with mango and passion fruit and toasted rice atop.
A chocolate slice was devoured before I contemplated (only briefly) risking divorce by not splitting a Macaron that was so FUCKING amazing that I’d kill you, yes you reading this, for one right now.
On the flip side of the table was the prettiest of the desserts with a creamy Bavarois offset beautifully by an intricate blueberry Tuile that had me salivating. More wonderful craftsmanship was to appear on the Mandarin Palet Dor with amazing chocolate work that would probably take me two lifetimes to learn how to perfect.
It was the perfect end to what had been a meal I’d been dreading. Saphyre is housed on the site of Ulsterville Church on the Lisburn Road. The out-of-use church being put to use by Kris Turnbull with an ultra high-end boutique out front and restaurant out back. The mix of boutique and restaurant had me initially worrying that this would be a confused mess. On the contrary, whilst it’s a little odd to walk through a shop (no matter how high end) to get to a restaurant, the décor is stunning.
Every millimetre of space in Saphyre has been utilised to become the anti-Belfast restaurant. There isn’t a brick wall or unmatched hard chair in sight. Sitting in the restaurant you could be in Mayfair or midtown Manhattan in an old-school high-end restaurant.
Everything about the place screams opulence from the gold walls to the plates and high-backed chairs that follow a matching green colour scheme. The waiting area, where we’d first sat for a cocktail on comfortable chairs on arrival makes great use of the old church’s original state with dark blue walls making way for stained glass windows.
We’d began our lunch with an Amuse-bouche of duck liver parfait in tiny little cones toped with a mulled wine espuma. Both ladies at the table felt it lost its appeal after the wine top was gone, but it worked wonderfully for me.
Let’s get one thing straight right from the start (well 538 words in if truth be told) this is a restaurant that is fancy in how it looks and how it wants to translate onto its amazingly expensive plates and as such this will not be a cheap date. Even during lunch, starters begin life at £10 and the high-end mains end at £27.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who walks through a boutique out front where a single spoon can cost more than the fancy set of knives I own. But it’s truly worth it and whilst its opulence is there for all to see, the atmosphere isn’t nearly as stuffy as you’d think… in fact it was quite relaxed.
My only niggle about the lunch menu is that it’s a little wishy-washy in its design. It’s hard to tell where starters end and mains begin. It threw all of us for a few minutes… though in fairness, since I’d looked at the menu online, I’d always known I’d order the Ulster Fry to start.
I’ve been told the dish divides opinion nearly as much as Marmite does and I can see why. This is an attempt at taking a classic dish from these shores and turning it into a fine dining experience.
I’m not sure how many incarnations it’s been through so far, but it’s not far off being a stunning dish that man, woman and beast should travel to the Lisburn Road to devour.
A slow poached egg is surrounded by a light, airy Potato Bread espuma that could do with a little more flavour coming through. There’s dots of a beautifully rich roasted tomato sauce and thin slices of black pudding and topped with a slice of truffle.
I hate to nit-pick when a chef is being creative and different but with an injection of flavour into the espuma and possibly a bit more of the soda bread croutons to ensure the last third of the dish isn’t just one texture, it really could be a dish to marvel at.
There was smoked salmon with bagel crisps and cucumber and a pressed game terrine that came with a rich truffle mayonnaise and generous amounts of Foie gras. The pickled hazelnuts that lay alongside the terrine somehow managed to be show stopping.
Service, led by maître d’ Sam Vincey was impeccable – friendly and professional in equal measure and on hand for a barrage of questions about a restaurant whose doors have only been open a few months.
Starters led through to mains where a Finnebrogue Venison burger was moister than I’d originally gave the menu credit for. A fillet of beef, cooked right on the money came with a tender, sticky slow cooked short rib that should be on everyone’s list of things to eat in 2014.
Accompanied by crispy duck fat chips and a rich Béarnaise sauce it was an astonishingly good plate of food. Though if memory serves me, the menu may change quite heavily in the next week or two.
My Dover Sole had been treated immaculately both in preparation and cooking. Braised and charred leeks accompanied the rich bacon and clam butter sauce on top. A side of parsley pomme purée that was both a vibrant green colour and silky smooth in texture finished off the dish. It was rich and seductive and a dish that simply shone through.
As plates were cleared, I realised I’d made the right choice not hogging the Macaron as petit fours were served and there was enough for everyone. Along with those petit fours we had a glass of Antech-Limoux Doux Et Fruité that was astonishingly good – I hadn’t expected such a sweetness to go with the bubbles. And bubbles were definitely the perfect way to end a frickin’ damn fine meal.
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